I am sitting at my reading desk full of books that can be quite depressing (in terms of showing me the magnitude of work left undone) and staring blankly at my laptop with sticky notes detailing the most ridiculous of contents. “What law makes Accra Ghana’s capital?” There is a quote from Baffoe Bonnie on fair trial being jus cogens. There’s another one with full-length analysis of my past academic year under the categories of cows, question marks, stars and dogs. But it’s a Saturday night and I am preparing to methodically follow one of my quant traditions. Today is Saturday night so the song for the night is EC Arinze’s Saturday Night. Tomorrow is Sunday and Carol Albert’s Perfect Sunday would make a lovely midday tune. I have all these quaint traditions. It began with playing Jim Reeve’s “We Thank Thee” whenever I got an A in undergrad. Obviously, there was a surfeit at a point and then I had to stop. Then it was the reading of Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain every Saturday night.
But it is Saturday night and while EC Arinze’s Saturday Night blasts away, I hear the muezzins’ call to prayer. Loudly. I begin to count the number of muezzins so as to gauge the "quantity" of Adhans in the air. For the very first time in my life, I notice the number of mosques around me and how growing up, all of it was so…normal. Usual.
Growing up, religion seemed inconsequential. It didn’t matter that there were hundreds of Abduls or Mohammeds in my school. Yes, all of them were there and there was me. But for some reason, it never mattered at all. We all loved the Eid. We all loved Christmas. It was simple. Sitting here, on a Saturday night, it is so surreal to me how religion has moved from being inconsequential – a simple fact of life – to being something I can expressly acknowledge. Call and name it as it were.
But it took time to begin to learn how to name Religion and Difference. From being a Prosper in the midst of hundreds of Abduls, I was in a purist catholic minor seminary for secondary education. In such a place, every name was catholic, the catholicity of which depended on the generation of Catholics your parents belonged to. If they were those ancient, conservative, pre-Vatican II Catholics, you could get a name plus fort like Marcus or Carnisus or Africanus or something close depending on whose feast day you were born. You had to pray they were not eccentric otherwise they would hold hands, giggle, close their eyes and point to any name on the Catholic Calendar and name you after the Saint of that day: a name which sounded super weird and heavily Latinized. If your parents were more modern, they would pick a mildly tolerable name like Peter, John, Paul or Shadrack. Others were more ambitious and would call their children names like Perseus. What do you expect from a school where our rector was called Fr. Pamphilio?
Proper catholic education can be gruelling and unkind to unbroken boys. When I mean gruelling, I mean Sandhurst level gruelling. Proper catholic education means working like a slave, praying like a saint and studying like a monk. It was that simple. Well, not so simple. Church was six times a week for everyone, Saturday being the exception. Though there was no mass on Saturday, there was choir practice in the evening. Inevitably, you had to do church the entire week, whether you liked it or not. Everyone was in the choir. Everyone was a reader. Everyone was a mass server. There were all kinds of liturgical roosters prepared for all kinds of things. We prayed before and after meals and had night prayers six times weekly. Leading night prayers for about a year is still something I laugh about. It was part prayers and part politics. Whenever prefects slighted us at least collectively as laymen, night prayers were our venom. We would either quote bible verses to remind them of their duty or pray about it, aloud, so they would hear. I recently came across my rules book and rule 30 was so interesting. I couldn’t imagine it was an entire school rule:
BRINGING FOOD STUFF OTHER THAN GROUNDNUTS AND BAMBARA BEANS
1ST offence: Seizure of food items and signing of bond of good behavior in addition to four weeks external suspension
2nd offence: indefinite suspension.
A friend of mine once went home for charging a rechargeable lamp. For two weeks I think. Another did two weeks internal suspension because his money was stolen (read again, his money was stolen). Steven, who was coming from Tema, could not bring himself to eat TZ in the first week only to become an expert in all things TZ – whether mashing it or eating it – by the time we completed. Everyone couldn’t wait for it all to end. Sitting in the hexagonal recreational hall, “CHRIST IS THE ANSWER” painted in red above the exam clock and waiting for it to strike 4.30 pm to signal the end of the e-math paper was almost unbelievable. That finally, we were free and could eat Spicy and Mummy’s Kitchen as often as we wanted without having to feign a reason for an exeat or break some other school rule.
Here we were on the hill in Kpaguri in the relatively unknown town of Wa being torn into, remolded and baked to make “Christian gentlemen”. There were aspects of my mission training that I absolutely loved and the dividends of which I continue to reap today. But I sometimes felt that the environmental conditions under which this Sandhurst level training was taking place were unreal. I didn’t think it was representative of what the real world would be and I worried that I wouldn’t be adequately prepared to engage in the real world. In my view, many mission schools are not necessarily true to life. It is always “us” and “them”. This enduring period of my life taught me how to categorize and label. How to say “I am this” and “You are that”.
But this experience of labelling and the inconsequentialism that preceded it has helped shape my views on religious freedom. Somehow, I have learnt to combine both. That it may be possible to label and do so in a way that is not offensive but rather thorough and thoughtful. More like diversity and inclusion. But this is me. Teaching young teenagers onioned versions of “I” and “You” is dangerous when not done properly. It may lead to an attachment to ideas that are not properly thought through. My Soundcore Mini continues to boom with the voice of EC Arinze and the muezzins have stopped the Adhan. The Isha prayers are in full swing. About three or four mosques. So different from Accra where the three churches around me would have all-night services on Friday.
For many others, when they grow an attachment to a label, there is no incentive to see anything else. My religion is superior. We have a more superior claim to the stool or skin. We have a greater claim to this land. The list goes on. There is nothing bad about a narrow view of one’s claim to things. What is wrong is to assert the “superiority” of one’s claim in such a way as to make it impossible for others to establish competing claims. It is equally wrong to assert one’s claim to things in such a way as to harm others.
I learnt this lesson from the cows, dogs, sheep and goats I meet every day while I ride to work. I am yet to meet a donkey, a horse and a mule. Whether it is along Tunaa Street or Queen Elizabeth Avenue, I meet these animals all the time. Standing in the middle of the road looking glum. A cow in the middle of a busy road, far removed from grass. Looking foolish. Unperturbed by the cars, motorcycles and auto rickshaws (variously called Camboo, Yellow Yellow, etc). The cow has a small view of life.
Sometimes, it’s a heap of strange sticks lying in the middle of busy crossroads. Other times, it’s an egg surrounded by grey ash instead of sticks. Or it can be cola nut with millet instead of an egg. A small view of life, therefore, is not always bad, it can sometimes give hope. Where the hope it gives does not hurt those around us, it may be given some chance to shine. What is bad is a small view of life that magnifies and pretends to be what the whole world must be about.
A small view of life can also be a consequence of choicelessness that stifles the ability to dream. We used to call them Zoom Police. These were community law enforcement officers or something. I am not quite sure. But some years ago, not very far from Sabonkudi close to where UTC used to be in the late 80s, I saw these officers haggling over the price of secondhand underwear. In the hot sweltering sun. Often one sees women in the bucket of tricycles with long faces. The suffering which tells the absence of dreams is written all over their faces.
I have been craving wagashi lately. And I am going to get it! A small view of life, I suppose? The inability to restrict one’s tongue desires.